Be careful what you wish for…..
I’m afraid I’m going to get serious on this one…..
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about identity. Who I am, how I define myself, what is important to me? At the same time I have been having a sporadic debate with Laurie Ruettimann about the connections between work and identity.
Laurie’s view as far as I understand it is that we work for money and for no other reason. She argues that, “loving your job because it makes some kind of ’spiritual sense for you’ is not an inalienable right. It’s a luxury afforded to a privileged class of people.”
I don’t agree with this, I believe there is a greater psychological need that humans satisfy through purposeful endeavor and that work satisfies this need. And more so, that this is as much a working class need as it is a middle class need. In fact, its a base human need.
History is littered with examples of workers fighting to protect their place of employment, look at the Swan Hunter shipyard, the Rover factory and of course not forgetting the entire coal mining industry. Now I’m not saying that some of the fight wasn’t about protecting jobs and therefore pay, but it was also about identity. Communities grew up and existed around these enterprises, workers were proud to be part of them, generations of families worked together in the same location.
Then there is the research into the impact of unemployment on psychological well being. It should come as no surprise that unemployed people feel higher levels of anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with their life, poor self-esteem, negativity regarding the future than in matched groups of employed people. This isn’t just about money, this is about self worth and sense of purpose.
I wonder whether the difference isn’t that in the past it was easier to identify with our employers. We were proud of the boats we built, the cars we made, the coal we dug. We knew what we were doing, who we were doing it for and why. We most probably also knew who our employer was. These days, with globalization our bosses could be anyone, anywhere. We produce things that we don’t understand and provide services that people don’t really need or want. We’re in a world where a banker used to be a proud honorable occupation, but these days they are scum of the earth.
And at the same time we are constantly being told that our lives need to be more enriching, we need to be in the gym, every day, socially networked up to our eyeballs, we need to be green and organic and in touch with our inner self. In turn, HR professionals (most of whom wouldn’t recognise original thought if it jumped on them from behind and pulled their eyelids down over their knees) try to create more far fetched “engagement” strategies to bridge this gap between the increasing complex desires and the increasing complex industries.
Employers’ attempts to engage employees aren’t part of some nefarious plan to mind wash people (well in most cases!) they are merely cack-handed attempts to try and explain the link between employee and employer in increasingly complex businesses and industries. I remain convinced that if you asked 100 people the simple question, “Tell me about yourself?” that over 90% would tell you about their employment within 60 seconds. And that is simply because for so many of us, work is an important part of who and what we are. And thats ok.
We work long hours and even if the lucky ones are cash rich, they are time poor. Work has always formed part of the definition of self and this is nor a bad thing. Turning it into a purely financial transaction makes us a commodity….human capital. At that is the start of a slippery slope that would suit many people with troubling views on the employment relationship.
Laurie, I respect your views, you raise some interesting points and have a lively and informative blog. But on this one you are wrong. Dangerously wrong.